Is anyone who expresses anti-Zionist opinions necessarily also anti-Semitic? Is anti-Semitism itself still an endemic and dangerous global problem? Has remembering the Holocaust become an unhealthy obsession, perhaps with a hidden agenda? Will readers regard a Jewish critic as a self-hating Jew just for considering Israeli helmer Yoav Shamir’s personal, occasionally irreverent “Defamation” an ace slice of provocative, timely docu-making? No doubt the first three questions — and many more — will stir up red-hot debates wherever “Defamation” unspools, which is likely to be at numerous further fests (although some Jewish-themed ones may balk) and on upscale channels.
Shamir, whose previous docu features (“Checkpoint,” “5 Days,” and “Flipping Out”) explored various aspects of current Israeli life, lays his cards on the table from the start by saying he’s never directly experienced anti-Semitism himself. After a comical interview with his own 92-year-old grandmother (who claims Jews abroad really are lazy and make money off others so they don’t have to work), Shamir sets out to assess whether anti-Semitism still lurks underneath the surface of supposedly civilized societies, or is just a scarecrow used to drum up political support for right-wing Zionism.
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Judging by the evidence offered here, both opinions look plausible. Shamir engages thinkers from across the spectrum, from Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, which collects evidence of anti-Semitism, to left-wing academic Norman Finkelstein, whose controversial book “The Holocaust Industry” argues that what the Nazis did is used today to justify Israel’s maltreatment of Palestinians.
As journalism, pic is impressively evenhanded (as were “Checkpoint” and “5 Days”), even though the filmmaker never attempts to disguise his own left-leaning sympathies. He can’t resist skewering the ADL a bit, making Foxman look somewhat sinister and Machiavellian behind his front of affability. Then again, persuasive but embittered Finkelstein, caught ranting about the “warmongers of Martha’s Vineyard,” doesn’t come across too well either.
The most comic and disturbing sequences spring from footage of Israeli high school students visiting extermination camps in Poland. Struggling to come to grips with what the Holocaust means for their generation, they eat candy while watching archive footage of emaciated Auschwitz victims (a moment worthy of “Seinfeld”). Later, some kids confess they’re scared to leave their hotel rooms because they’ve been warned by their teachers and the Secret Service agents accompanying them that the country is fit to burst with anti-Semites who mean them harm.
Use of hand-drawn graphics to identify onscreen figures amps up the comedy effectively, as does editor Morten Hojbjerg’s deadpan use of abrupt cuts, which dampens subject matter’s potential grimness. End result is at once intelligent, wry and — there’s no way around it — quintessentially Jewish, in the best sense.